Ryan Gosling makes his directorial debut with Lost River, an impressively controlled artful nothing. It’s 95 minutes of misfiring aesthetic signifiers coming from the same impulses that led him to work with Nicolas Winding Refn twice (in the good Drive and awful Only God Forgives). Here Gosling loves to provide striking images, woozy with neon and darkness, blood and fire. There are slow motion tracking shots to nowhere, lingering on hardships, and long looks at extreme violence real and imagined, literal and figurative. Dripping with empty visual interest, it lays out its graphical approach quickly, and then grows monotonous. As for character and story, his screenplay regards them as just more elements of design rather than features unto themselves. As a result, the film is a static, uninvolving slog, shorn free of narrative momentum and symbolic importance alike.
That’s not to say the movie is devoid of ideas. It’s a vague statement on the decrepit state of the American dream at its lowest points. Finding his story among the marginalized and impoverished, Gosling films Detroit’s ruins as a stand in for a fictional city, Lost River, drowned by economic disaster. Residents are fleeing. Structures and infrastructure are crumbling. Exploitation and arson are common activities. A nearby dam was once a promise of progress, but has only left an underwater neighborhood to show for it. In all this decay we meet a single mom (Christina Hendricks) about to lose her home, unable to pay her predatory mortgage. Gosling piles on miseries and films them with a surface beauty, taking aesthetic pleasure in pain.
Hendricks’s sons, a young man (Iain De Caestecker) and a toddler (Landyn Stewart), are smudged and sad. Their neighbors, a mute old woman (Barbara Steele) and her granddaughter (Saoirse Ronan), live amidst stacks of hoarded garbage. There’s a depressed feeling hanging over it all. Where’s the hope, when they’re the last remaining people on the block? Those who’ve remained can barely scrape out a living. A sleazy bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn) sees how desperate Hendricks is to make payments and offers her a job at a macabre nightmare burlesque run by a horror-loving madam (Eva Mendes) quick to splash fake blood. Meanwhile, her older son makes money selling copper scavenged out of abandoned buildings and runs afoul of a self-proclaimed scrap metal kingpin (Matt Smith).
This villainous presence – a howling buzzcut weirdo driven around in a vintage car with an easy chair attached in the back – is just one of many oddball elements presented entirely straight-faced. (I didn’t even mention his habit of cutting off people’s lips with scissors.) There are strange rituals, dreadful recurring symbols, talk of a town curse, a scene where a woman slowly cuts her face and peels back the skin, and a musical interlude involving a creepy rendition of an old Bob Nolan western song. There’s certainly a dreamy animating spirit behind this, tumbling from odd sight to surreal aside. But there’s never a coherent worldview aside from how cool it’s supposed to look and how seriously we’re to take it, sub-Lynchian bafflement without a point.
The actors are mostly left to their own devices, doing as much as they can with as little as they’re given. Gosling doesn’t appear to be interested in using actors for anything other than how his cinematographer Benoît Debie (Spring Breakers, Enter the Void) can place them in the frame. The result is a movie of moments and images without connective tissue logical, emotional, narrative, or political. There are feints towards all of those, but no actual strikes. Gosling proves himself a filmmaker of terrific aesthetic control. He could be a great director someday. But this is a most enervating start. He’s proven he can conjure an interesting look, if one borrowed from Refn, Cianfrance, Malick, and even some directors he hasn’t worked with. If he gets behind the camera again, let’s hope he can find something to say.